In 2012, I escaped the practice of law in favor of writing full time. I am a entrepreneurial writer with a blog and a column in the Vail Daily detailing my behind the scenes experiential research in restaurant kitchens in Colorado and drawing on my near 2 decades living in Switzerland and extensive travel through Europe during that time, particularly Piemonte.
Currently, I am also writing a book on the under discovered stories of the women of Piemonte, specifically the Langhe and Roero areas.
I am also the Bailli of the Bailliage de Vail of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs and an officer of the Southwest Region of the Bailliage des Etats-Unis.
Wine expert, Marcella Newhouse of Enoteca Marcella, has some great advice on opening those special bottles of wine. In her post, “So when are you going to open that?,” Marcella ponders that ago-old question, “why isn’t the bottle as special as I remember it?” Her discussion of the abstract concept of wine appreciation is worth the read.
As readers of my reviews know, I lived in Switzerland for over 2 decades. We had a home in Valais near Crans-Montana for 25 years, so I know the south-central canton of Valais quite well. Many wonderful gems that escape visitors’ notice, particularly Americans, can be found in the Valais. One of those special gems is Chateau de Villa, a veritable raclette and wine paradise.
This 16th century chateau lies above the valley town of Sierre, bordered above by the lower vineyards of the Cote de Sierre and just west of the imaginary, but realistic roestigraben (the linguistic border between French and German speaking Switzerland also know as the “potato ditch”). Is that a good enough description or would you prefer satellite coordinates? Just wanted to set the scene for readers because its location is part of its magic.
Recently I returned to Valais and was delighted to discover than in this world of tumult and unpleasant changes, one cherished thing has remained the same. The Chateau de Villa is still the best place on the planet to enjoy delicious raclette des alpage. Well, perhaps sitting in an alpine hut enjoying the raclette where it’s made could top it, but only by a small margin.
To begin with, there is nothing kitsch about Chateau de Villa. It is what it is – a 16th century chateau that houses an oenotheque with a vast selection of local wines and a lovely restaurant specializing in this region’s signature products – dried meats and cheese, particularly raclette. If you are unfamiliar with the vinous delights of Valais, this is just the place you need to go to explore these treasures.
The best way for me to describe the food and wine at the Chateau is to take you through a typical meal. But first, let’s order the wine.
Under Discovered Wine Treasures
Starting with white isn’t merely the usual Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio choices so prevalent in the US. Yes, you will discover wonderful Chardonnay (Simon Maye et Fils is one of the best I’ve had from anywhere, but not always available outside the cellar) and Sauvignon Blanc, but you should go for the local varietals such as Fendant, Petite Arvine and Paien/Heida. There are over 20 different types of white wines on the restaurant’s massive wine list.
One of my favorites is Paien (Heida). It’s a Savagnin Blanc that grows primarily in the mid to upper valley reaches of the Valais wine region. You will not find this wine anywhere outside of Switzerland. Actually, it’s hard to find outside of Valais. My two favorite producers of this varietal are Mabillard-Fuchs and Simon Maye et Fils, but only the former is on the list.
Of course, Fendant (made from the Chasselas grape) is the most common white wine in the region. Cheese must be in its DNA because it is a perfect pairing for all cheese dishes. Fendant goes well with dried meats and sausages, too.
Different red varietals are also abundant on the wine list at the Chateau de Villa. There are fifteen different reds on the wine list. My favorites – because they aren’t found anywhere else – are Dole (Gamay and Pinot Noir), Humagne Rouge and Cornalin. More and more producers such as Nicolas Bagnoud and Simon Maye are making stunning Pinot Noirs that are gaining notoriety beyond Switzerland’s borders. One restaurant in Alba in the middle of Nebbiolo country carried Simon Maye’s old vines Pinot Noir before the wife and chef-owner split.
Cornalin is a lovely red that goes great with red meats, particularly game. Again, Nicolas Bagnoud is an excellent producer of this red considered one of Valais’ treasures. It’s production dates at least to the early 14th century. Unfortunately, you won’t find Bagnoud’s wines on the list, so go for another great producer, Gregor Kuonen.
Syrah from Valais is a very special wine, too. It’s from clones of Tain l’Hermitage in the opposite end of the Rhone River in the Valle du Rhone north of the river’s delta. This is very special Syrah. Simon Maye was one of the first Valaisanne producers to grow Syrah and the winery’s old vines Syrah would rival many of its famous southern, French cousins.
I could go on and on, but I’ll let you discover these treasures on your own. One word about price. Make no mistake, Valais wines are expensive. If you spend time in the vineyards and caves of Valais, you’ll understand why. Production is small and the labor required to produce these crafted wines is great. Just enjoy it! Surely from the over 600 different wines on the list you’ll find something to your taste and budget.
Fromages des Alpages
So let’s turn our attention to food. To start, we always order a few plates of viande sechee for the table – three to four people to one plate if you’re having raclette is a good ratio. Each plate contains meat from three different producers. Your server will give you a clear explanation of each.
Since you’re about to indulge in a fabulous meal that is anything but low fat, don’t skimp on the calories or fat grams. Throw caution to the wind. With your viande sechee you will receive cornichons and the famous Valais walnut rye bread with pats of sweet, creamy Flora butter. Spread the butter on the nut bread, put a piece of viande sechee and a cornichon on top and then savor this lovely flavor combination that is so uniquely Valaisanne.
There are a few other meat plates that are delicious starters, but I’m a creature of habit and always enjoy viande sechee when I visit, particularly the high quality meat Chateau de Villa serves.
So, we next order raclette forfait. This is a degustation of five different raclette cheeses made in the alpages of Valais and bearing the AOC designation. The Chateau only serves Raclette du Valais AOC from the alpages in the Rhone River’s lateral valleys that stretch from just east of Lake Geneva to the Valle des Conches further upstream from Brig. The alpage choices change frequently, but the general areas remain the same. Over 12 metric tons of cheese are served here annually. Potatoes go hand-in-hand with the raclette and some of the fondue, so they serve over 600 kilos of potatoes each month.
“Master Scraper” Alexandre “Alex” Alder is in perpetual motion as he not only scrapes the cheeses, but serves each one as well, describing it in detail as, with a bit of panache, he places the plate before you. I am always amazed at how he keeps track of everyone’s plate and knows who in the room is having what. He’s simply brilliant.
Ask Alex for some religieuse. It’s the crispy, somewhat burned melted rind of the raclette.
The perfect partner for your raclette is the endless supply of small potatoes kept warm in a quilt-lined basket and bowls of cornichons and picked onions you’ll be served. Ask for the pepper mill if your server forgets (it gets VERY busy, so please be patient….have another glass of wine and the passage of time will not matter).
After you complete the tour des alpages, Alex will ask you what you would like to have again. I love strong cheeses, so I go for eastern Turtmann, Gomser and Simplon alpages that are usually on offer. Ask Alex for a map of the Valais that notes each alpage of origin. He will gladly mark which ones you’ve had.
There was one slight change recently made. Instead of an unlimited amount of raclette for a flat price, you “only” can get seven servings and will have to pay for each additional one. Since eight is my maximum and only on a dare, trust me, you will not be paying for additional servings.
The fondue choices are also wonderful; however, I make delicious fondue, so I always go for what I can’t get at home which means this high quality raclette. If you do order fondue, go for the fondue aux tomates. It’s typical to the region and is also known as Fondue Valaisanne. Instead of dipping bread into the creamy, melted cheese and tomatoes, you will get raclette potatoes over which you ladle the molten cheese. Superb! Don’t forget the fresh black pepper.
ONE NOTE OF CAUTION: Many people do not realize the danger in drinking water – particularly cold water – with fondue and raclette. You should drink only wine or hot tea that aids in the digestion of the cheese. You will not feel very good if you have water while eating.
The Chateau de Villa is an excellent place to visit when you explore the wine families of Valais. Make sure you visit the oenotheque before you go in for dinner as it closes early. Seating outside in summer is quite pleasant. Parking can be a hassle. If there are no places along Rue St. Catherine, there is a lot on the west end of the street. You can have pleasant walk to and from the restaurant. Just follow that wonderful smell of melted raclette and you’ll find it!
Piemonte – the land where Nebbiolo not only grows best, but the alchemy of grapes to wine would delight Bacchus himself. One of the region’s rising alchemists is 31 year-old Elisa Scavino. Her family name should be familiar to any Barolo-phile since she is the granddaughter of Paolo Scavino, founder of the venerable Castiglione Falletto winery bearing his name.
Although famous for its 7 Baroli produced from grapes of 19 single crus in 6 of the 11 Barolo appellation villages, Paolo Scavino’s portfolio also includes other lovely wines of distinction. What I love most about Piemonte – what’s missing from Tuscany, in my opinion – is the broad range of different interesting varietals, both red and white, the Langhe and Roero offer. That’s certainly not missing at Scavino. Six other wines grace the winery’s portfolio, all beautiful expressions of the region’s varietals.
This month I visited Piemonte to continue research for my book, “Under Discovered: Le Donne di Piemonte.” One of the women of Piemonte who will grace my book’s pages, Paola Grasso of Ca’ del Baio, introduced me to Elisa. Since I restrict my writing to family owned wineries where the “family business speaks to the culture of wine,” in Paola’s words, I delighted in the opportunity to meet someone from the famous Scavino family.
Discovering a Barolo Treasure
On my last full day in Piemonte, I drove to the Scavino winery, spitting distance from our agriturismo, Gioco dell’Oca, on the outskirts of Barolo. The winery’s buildings reflect its owners: non-pretentious, but distinctive. Setback from the busy Barolo – Alba highway, the winery lies behind a lovely iron gate with a simple “S” on each panel. Other than the obscure sign I barely saw from the highway, it was the only clue I was in the right spot.
The familiar tinkling sound of bottles moving along a bottling machine’s conveyor belt greeted me when I walked through the massive wooden doors into the courtyard. It seems like everywhere I went, something delicious was going into bottles, some for sale now, some to age for a few more years.
After a few short minutes alone in the tasting room, the door opened. In trotted a large, somewhat smiling yellow lab, Lino (short for Ercolino), and Elisa Scavino. The first thing I noticed about Elisa was her smile. Unlike many people whose smiles are restricted to the muscles around their mouths, Elisa’s smile sparkled in her dark, half-moon eyes as well. My intuition is usually spot-on. It was screaming, “This is going to be a wonderful experience.” It certainly was.
No more “Due di Picchi”
Elisa has plenty to smile about. Like Paola Grasso, Elisa was born in a time when women are no longer relegated to the shadows. “Women’s work” no longer excludes making wine. Elisa is a member of a growing demographic of talented, rising stars of Piemonte: young women.
Since the 1980s, Piemontese women now possess career choices. However, for Elisa, there was no “choice” to make, only opportunity to grasp. She was born into a wine producing family. To her, like Grasso, there was never any doubt she would be a winemaker. Since early in her life, Elisa worked hard to join her father Enrico’s profession. To her, to be a successful winemaker is to honor her father.
It’s a good thing women are now accepted in the wine industry since so many of the prominent Piemonte houses will pass into women’s hands in coming decades. This was not always possible. For generations, the birth of daughters and no sons doomed estates. Given the culture of the times, having girls was akin to being dealt a “due di picchi” (bad hand) at cards. Those times have changed.
In the 1980s, women like Chiara Boschis and Livia Fontana graduated from the “school of hard knocks” after learning viticulture and oenology from their fathers. These pioneering women emerged as Barolo’s first women wine producers. When Barolo master, Bartolo Mascarello, passed away in 2005, daughter Maria Teresa assumed control of the family winery, continuing in her father’s footsteps. Now, Elisa and sister Enrica, Marta Rinaldi, the three Grasso sisters – Paola, Valentina and Federica – and many other women are in line to inherit generations old wineries. The future of great estates is no longer at risk to the whims of genetics.
Cracking the Educational Glass Ceiling
Although daughters of wine families could learn winemaking from the time they first walked, formal wine industry training was not possible. Only in recent decades did the famous Wine School of Alba (formerly the Royal Enological School) Domizio Cavazza founded in the late 19th century accept women students. Elisa and two other women, including Rosanna Gaja, comprised one of the earliest classes of women oenologists the famous school graduated.
For Elisa, however, the only education she wanted was the one she got in the vineyards and cellar with her father. Her parents encouraged her to consider other studies, such as science or classical studies, but only wine school’s six-year program would do for Elisa.
Next, Elisa graduated with an oenology degree from the University of Torino’s three-year program. Since long before her first awareness of Barolo’s special nature with the release of 1985 vintage in 1989, Elisa knew what she wanted to do in life. She now had the tools to do it. In January 2005, Elisa returned to Castiglione Falletto and took up her position in the family business.
Finding Her Place
Family businesses often are daunting places to launch careers. Pressures to contribute and learn all aspects of the business, including marketing and competition, created new challenges for Elisa. No longer were her days in the vineyards part of crafting career aspirations. This was reality, not dreams and longing. Her career took flight as she accepted the heavy responsibility that comes with being a member of a wine producing family. Elisa considers that time to have been a “big moment for her” in her “changing life.”
Shortly after graduating, with older sister Enrica, Elisa made her first marketing trip to America. Enrica, who studied languages and now handles marketing and sales for the winery, wanted Elisa to experience firsthand the their wines’ American market. It was an eye opening experience. Following the birth of Enrica’s first child in 2011, Elisa assumed more responsibility for traveling the world to show the wines.
Elisa enjoys tasting their wines with clients in different countries, but home definitely is where her heart lies. Although Elisa cherishes her earliest childhood memories of her father playing the harmonica while he drained casks in the cellar, she loves her work in the vineyards most of all. She explained to me how liberating she finds the lack of control one has when growing grapes.
Elisa finds “playing and interacting with nature” and following “nature’s philosophy” less intimidating than working in the cellar where she must confront the alchemy of the wine. Control is crucial in the cellar. I envy Elisa’s ability to eschew control and let nature take its course. It’s a gift.
No doubt, Paolo Scavino would be proud to see his granddaughters, members of an evolving generation, walking the path he laid for them when he started his winery in 1921. No more shadows for the women of Piemonte.
Writing this article about Ornella Correggia for an upcoming Matteo Correggia wine dinner at Zino Ristorante in Edwards was a warm up for Chapter 2 of my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.” Ornella is a humble, kind and serene woman whose innermost courage and strength helped her endure the unimaginable loss of her husband, Matteo, 12 years ago. She is a woman who is easy to spend time with and hard to say “good-bye” to as I discovered in March when I visited her at the winery outside of Canale in the Roero district of Piemonte.
I hope you enjoy this glimpse at a woman I greatly admire.
In 2004, my husband Dani met Paola and Valentina Grasso at a Barbaresco tasting in the village by the same name. He was snakebit by the wines and charmed by the knowledge and professionalism of the two young Grasso women. Fast forward 10 years. The three sisters – Paola, Valentina and Federica – work alongside their parents, Giulio and Luciana Grasso.
The Grasso family’s wine growing roots were planted in the 1880s when the family owned the entire prized Asili vineyard outside of Barbaresco. Giulio’s mother and father – Ernesto and Fiorentina – built the house and cantina on the current location in the 1950s. The site’s rich history dates to Napoleon, but you’ll have to wait for my book “Under Discovered Piemonte” for that! Luciana and Giulio represent the fourth generation of Ca’ del Baio – house of the bay horse. Oh yes, there is even a story about the horse! Given women can now work in the wineries – but only in recent decades – the future of Ca’ del Baio is secure in their three capable daughters.
In July 2010, Paola culminated her 7 year courtship with Carlo Deltetto at the alter of the Lady of the Assumption church in Treiso. Carlo is the son of noted Roero winemaker, Antonio (Tonino) and Graziella Deltetto.
The marriage of the two families created a buzz about whether new winery would emerge from their union. However, it seems Carlo and Paola are committed to their own families’ brands. The buzz will no doubt continue now that the two families share the fourth living generation – Lidia Deltetto, born December 17, 2011.
Giulio Grasso is committed to sustainable farming and a respect for the generations of traditions in producing the big nebbiolo wine of the region. The family’s production philosophy can be summed up as follows:
dedicate meticulous attention to each vine, especially during the pruning which is essential to well-balanced plant growth;
allow each single vintage to express its own, different identity;
bring out the genuineness in each wine by intervening as little as possible in the winery;
operate a sensible pricing policy, with no unjustified mark-ups.
Only native yeasts are used in fermentation. Synthetic herbicides and chemical fertilizers were banished from the vineyards many years ago. Only a small amount of sulfur dioxide is added to the wines. Otherwise, it’s just Mother Nature with a little help from Giulio and his daughters responsible for the high quality wines Ca’ del Baio produces.
More information on the family can be found at their informative website noted above.
Nearby Lodgings (less than 5 minutes from winery): Cascina delle Rose (bed and breakfast) – Tre Stelle Agriturismo Il Bricco (bed and breakfast) – Treiso Villa Incanto – Treiso Hotel dei Quattro Vini – Neive
Nearby Restaurants (less than 10 minutes from winery):
Profumo di Vino – Treiso
La Ciau del Tornavento – Treiso
Trattoria Risorgimento – Treiso Osteria Unione – Treiso
Antica Torre – Barbaresco
Sara Palma of the Roero’s stellar winery, Matteo Correggia, will be in Australia next week showing their beautiful wines. There are two dinners – Sydney on the 29th and Melbourne the 30th. Thirty days hath April, so I can’t think of a better way to end the first full month of spring (or fall) than attending a Matteo Correggia wine dinner.
You ask, why would I highlight this event? Simple. Ornella Correggia is one of the fascinating, courageous women profiled in my upcoming book “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.” Needless to say, the wines are beautiful and Sara is a delight. Her knowledge of the wines and effervescent enthusiasm makes for an entertaining and educational wine experience. Not to be missed!
It’s another snowy day in the Colorado High Country. I’m working on the introduction to my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.” It required me to think back to my first visit to Piemonte nearly 14 years ago. One thing that sticks out in my mind was the paucity of English language information available on Piemonte many thirteen harvest ago. Now, the quality offerings in bookstores – online and brick-n-mortar – have increased. Online blogs provide great sources of information as well. There is a plethora of wine, food and travel blogs, but here are a few of my favorites on Piemonte. Their authors have extensive, personal knowledge of the region and they keep their blogs current (which many do not!):
Marcella is a tried and true Piemonte-phile, as are all the bloggers I’m listing, who lived for a while in the region of the noble grape. How could they not be given the gastronomic treasures one can find in the rolling hills of the Langhe and Roero? Marcella’s blog is wine-centric and provides some excellent insight into the region’s beautiful wines. WIth over 13 years of experience of working in all facets of the wine industry, she is a trusted resource on the wines of Piemonte. Needless to say, Marcella is friends with one of my favorite Barbaresco producers, Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino, so that was all the reference I needed!
Fifty-nine TripAdvisor readers reviewed Robert and Leslie’s “Travel Langhe” to give them a five “star” rating for their custom wine tour company. They are located in Neive in the Barbaresco appellation, but they possess extensive knowledge of the all the wines in the Langhe and Roero regions. Their website is chocked full of useful travel information. Judging by the high quality, family-owned wineries on their list, they can put together a wonderful tour of the region for any oenophile who is familiar with Piemonte or one in the nascent stages of their Piemontephilia (a condition that can only be treated – never cured – by frequent trips to the region supplemented with regular doses of Nebbiolo based wines!).
Robert is also a fabulous photographer. Just look at this beauty he shot of Trieso in the Langhe near Barbaresco.
This is a great travel blog not just for Piemonte, but the world. The ladies have a particularly good feel for family travel since Elaine travels often with “The Princesses.” Smart, because my three granddaughters have been on the road (and air) with their parents since they were born. Now in their early teens, they are seasoned travelers with a keen appreciation for life beyond their neighborhood. But I digress.
Valerie is moving to Piemonte in June, so expect some great information on Piemonte to be added to the blog. Also, Elaine is a great photographer. The Carpe Travel Facebook page is a great place to look at some of her stunning pictures, particularly the one of Barbaresco and the Alps in the distance. Seize the opportunity to visit the website and their Facebook page.
Tu Langhe and Roero has been the guide for us in Piemonte from our earliest trips. Too bad their great, informative blog wasn’t available back then! Nevertheless, it is a great “boots on the ground” resource for travel to the Langhe and Roero regions of Piemonte.
Of course, there are a number of other sites and as I learn about them I will update this space. I haven’t personally met the bloggers above, but I have communicated with them and we have mutual friends. They are very knowledgeable and I’m sure would be of great help to you on your travels there.
TripAdvisor is a trusty resource for wining, dining and playing in Piemonte. But it’s a good reference point to use to cross check recommendations and see what visitors who took the time to write reviews have to say. I must admit, there are some pretty good reviews on TripAdvisor by someone called “Villa Arneis.” Uh hum.
Also, I’m updating – when possible – my list of winery contacts and suggestions for lodgings and restaurants. Of course, any one of the above bloggers can help with that, too. The more quality info, the better.
On a roll! Four covers in a row! On to Finanziera, an historic Piemontese dish.
The second part of my two part article on Chef Memo Field Melendez of Profumo di Vino in Treiso appeared on the cover of today’s Highlife section of the Vail Daily. After I submitted the article, I ran across an interesting history of finanziera – there are many! I didn’t want to burn up my word budget on it in the article since this dish deserves an article of its own, so I didn’t delve into it. But it’s so interesting I had to post it:
“Yet the poverty and inventive genius of peasant have also given rise to one of Piemonte’s most aristocratic modern-day dishes: finanziera.
Sandro Doglio reckons the recipe was created to use of the bits when cocks were castrated to become capons. Capons were of course raised and fattened for the lord of the manor or to sell at the market. But to the crests and the barbels of the poor birds and the organs cut off to reduce their masculinity – all parts of no commercial value – peasant women learnt to add a few drops of sour wine to make a tasty steve, which they thickened with a pinch of flour. Some sources claim that this stew – the so-called finanziera – was a sort of tribute paid by peasants going to Turin market to sell their poultry. To have a free passage into the city, they bribed the customs guards, or finanzieri, with giblets (livers, hearts, gizzards, testicles, crests and barbels). And with these bits and pieces, the wives of the customs officers would prepare one of the region’s greatest dishes, an example of imagination, genius and astuteness combined.”
– from “The Rhythms of the Langhe,” Mario Busso, Carlo Vischi, page 35
Perhaps the fact that finanziera is listed under “Regalie” (meaning, gifts) in some of the cookbooks I’ve seen gives credence to this conjecture about the origins of this innards stew.
This is one of my favorite books about the region. Full of wonderful folk lore, great recipes, history and stunning photos of the region. It can be obtained in the States. I bought a second copy recently on Amazon.com after losing track of my copy that I repeatedly leant to friends and oenophiles. Still wish it would find its way home along with my copy of the “Atlas of the Langhe.”
Two other wonderful Piemontese cookbooks (in Italian) where you’ll find finanziera recipes are:
Obviously, Mario Busso gets around quite a bit! All three of these books are a must if you are a true blue Piemonte-phile!
If you haven’t had a chance to read the two articles about Chef Memo and his wonderful restaurant in Treiso – where you can usually find finanziera in winter – here are the links. Feel free to “recommend” them!
I know it’s only spring (and if you’re up here in the Colorado High Country you might think it’s still winter). But it’s never too early to start planning your autumn wine trip to Valais, Switzerland where you will find an abundance of wine families. So I thought I’d post an article I did some months ago that was published in the Vail Daily. If you have questions or need travel tips, send me an email through this website.
For those of you old enough to remember the movie and Broadway production, Camelot, you’ll recall Lancelot’s crooning song to Guinevere “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Basically, Lancelot loves her so much he can’t think of a season he could bear leaving her. I was like that when I left Switzerland’s third largest canton, Valais, after calling it home for nearly 25 years. There really is no a season when Valais isn’t special. But autumn is the season my love for Valais is greatest and the one I miss the most, even here in the visual splendor of the Rocky Mountain High Country.
Other than Zermatt, most Americans are unfamiliar with Valais (Wallis in the German part of the canton). And that’s a pity. Valais’ beauty are the 300 million year old mountains of the Bernese and Peninne ranges soaring 14,000 feet above sea level over the lush Rhone River valley 13,000 feet below. The resulting diverse landscape is suitable for agriculture, viticulture, dairy farms, hydroelectric plants and recreation, most notably skiing, hiking and mountain biking. It’s the agrarian economy of Valais juxtaposed with the recreational wonderland that I love so much. Needless to say, viticulture creates particularly enjoyable recreational opportunities for oenophiles.
The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.
The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.
In America, tourists – and locals – flock to maple and aspen forests in autumn to witness colors dying leaves unleashed as chlorophyll levels diminish and vibrant colors masked by green emerge. Even in dry, hot years like this one, aspens paint the slopes in colors I liken to calico cats. No set pattern. Just a mélange of gold, red and white when early snows come. Valais has its own foliage, but its stars are changing grape leaves. Ancient vineyards use south-facing lower slopes of steep, craggy mountains and the floor of the Rhone valley as a canvas to paint their own botanical masterpieces.
So now you have a vision of Valais in autumn. Let’s explore a bit the delights this season has to offer. This week, wine.
Vineyard foliage provides the backdrop for the vendanges, or grape harvest. The oldest evidence of wine consumption in Valais is a 2nd century BC Celtic ceramic bottle found in a woman’s tomb. Odd habit of the Celts; they offered wine to the dead. Romans, who history tells us were into imbibing while still alive, picked up where the Celts left off. Wine has been continually produced in Valais since Roman times with production records from the Middle Ages found in church registers.
When I mention Swiss wines, particularly to guests in our home, I get a kick out of watching their skeptical faces turn to smiles of enjoyment as they take their first sips of these Alpine wines. Primarily due to the relatively small production and high labor costs, not to mention the skyrocketing value of the Swiss Franc, over 98% of Swiss wines are consumed domestically. And that’s pity. The wines are truly special.
During the vendanges, growers pick grapes for over 23 locally produced wines from Visp (the turn for Zermatt) west to Martigny. The often hot and dry microclimate of Valais, one of the sunniest spots in Europe, is perfect for growing a number of cultivars, some familiar to Americans, some not.
Fendant, one of the over 100 synonyms for Chasselas and used exclusively in Valais, is the second most planted grape in Valais, behind Pinot Noir. To the Valaisans, Fendant AOC is as iconic a Swiss symbol as cows, cheese and chocolate. The Valaisans are pragmatic people. All good food needs good wine and starting off a meal in Valais with a cold bottle of Fendant is a gastronomic must amongst locals. Makes sense since it is a natural pairing for cheese dishes such as Raclette AOC produced in high mountain pastures – alpages – during the summer and enjoyed throughout the year. The origin of “Fendant” is thought to be a local patois derivation of the French verb “fondre,” to melt. The tough outer skin is in stark contrast to the large grape’s delicate meat that melts when squeezed. Easy to remember what’s great with raclette and fondue – both melted cheese dishes – think Fendant, the grape that melts!
One might call Pinot Noir “the grape that saved the Valais wine industry.” Its appearance in the mid-19th century was part of efforts to regenerate viticulture in Valais. Like the home of Pinot Noir, Burgundy, Valais is prone to both dryness and cold weather, both of which the grape tolerates well. Unlike Burgundy where irrigation is forbidden, both drip and sprinkler irrigation provide summer moisture in this semi-arid Alpine environment. Legendary Valais wine producer, the late Simon Maye, brought drip irrigation to Valais from Israel in the mid-20th century. His impact on wine production, both through innovation and dedication to quality, cannot be overstated. His sons, Axel and Jean-Francois along with their mother, Antoinette, carry on production of excellent Valais wines, most notably Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (old vines), Dole (a classic Valais blend primarily of Pinot Noir), Syrah, Petite Arvine, Paien, and Fendant.
Paien, or Heida as it is called in Upper Valais, is the Valais version of Savagnin Blanc. This grape, that pairs beautifully with wild mushrooms and fresh mountain cheeses that abound in Valais, is cultivated in both the French and German speaking parts of the canton. The earliest record of Heida was found in Visperterminen where since the 16th century it has been grown in Europe’s highest vineyards at 3600 feet above sea level.
Many indigenous varietals were on the wane as other more trendy – and lucrative – wines appeared in the mid-20th century. But since the Valais government’s initiative in the 1980s to preserve these ancient members of Swiss viticulture, production has increased. Cornalin du Valais, the rich, bold red that ages nicely and stands up to the powerful flavors of game, is one varietal that has enjoyed a renaissance. It has become so important that there’s a festival (fete) in Flanthey to honor it every September. It’s my favorite Swiss wine in autumn given the availability of a bounty of flavors that so nicely pair with it. Enjoying a bottle of Cornalin in autumn on vintner Nicolas Bagnoud’s winery patio, drinking in both his excellent Cornalin and the spectacular optics of autumn while enjoying dried sausages and local cheeses, should be on any oenophile’s itinerary for Valais. Other indigenous wines include Armigne, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge, also known as Cornalin d’Aosta. This red wine is referred to as “gentleman’s wine” because of its low alcohol content that makes it great for lunch when followed by an afternoon of work.
Now that you have a little more knowledge of the Valais wine portfolio, I urge you refer to www.lesvinsduvalais.ch for a broader view of the vinous pleasures hidden in plain sight in Valais.
After a week of travel and back-to-back fascinating interviews of le donne di Piemonte (women of Piemonte), I was ready for a break to process all that I had learned. Spending my Saturday morning strolling through the Alba mercato and through the ancient city’s old town was just what I needed. But now it was time for lunch!
I’m such a creature of habit. Fortunately, some are good habits, like never missing an opportunity to have lunch at La Cantinetta in Barolo.
As I drove to the western side of the Langhe, the skies were darkening and curtains of rain fell in the distance. Monte Viso and its neighbors in the Cottian Alps had been so prominent below the azure blue skies two days ago, but now were hidden in the clouds. The autumn-like chill in the damp air made me feel as though I should be in search of tartufi bianci. But looking out over the barren, pruned vineyards, there was no mistaking the season. It was spring and the vines were merely waiting for the sun’s signal that it was safe for the swelling buds to break. The locals were a bit worried about the never-ending cold, damp weather. But there was still time for Mother Nature to help the vines along before flowering in the waning days of spring.
When I walked into La Cantinetta, with its walls covered with shelves of wine in the front room and simple larger dining room to the back, I was disappointed not to find co-owner and manager Maurilio Chiappetto running about the restaurant. Everything was the same as it had been since we first ate there with 16 year-old Giuseppe Vaira nearly 14 years ago, except there was no Maurilio, dressed in an apron – usually a blue Deltetto one – bustling about.
But I was assured he would be in the afternoon. Good. It wasn’t just the food I was after. I wanted to interview Maurilio and to finally have a chance to learn more about him, his brother and chef Paolo, their 89 year old “agnolotti-loving” father, Giovanni, and their fascinating traditional Piemontese restaurant they had been running since 1981, first in Alba then in Barolo since 1995.
Somethings must change and since I was on my own at the restaurant for the first time, I opted for a small table in the front room, next to shelves of some of the most noble names in Piemontese wines. I also figured I had a better chance of catching Maurilio in the front near the cash register.
La Cantinetta is one of those marvelous restaurants that has a menu, I think, but offers you whatever chef is cooking for the day. All you have to do is say “yes” or “no” to the courses as they come out. That day I was determined to keep the calorie count below 5,000 and only have the small plates of uber-traditional antipasti.
I could write a 1,200 word column on antipasto (singular of antipasti – but let’s face it, when have you ever had just one antipasto?). I’m not doing that now.The word, derived from Latin and meaning “before the meal,” dates to the 1500’s, according to one dictionary source. For the most part, Americans equate antipasti with a plate of salumi, olives and the like. But the Piemontese concept of dishes “before the meal” in fact can be a meal!
At La Cantinetta, it is more than a meal! Can’t believe I usually have Paolo’s antipasti (which is about five different plates, cold then hot) and primi piatti (usually two different different pastas and one risotto) and seconde (usually brasato, roasted lamb or chinghiale – wild boar). Of course, let’s not forget the incredibly delicious, crispy grissini that grace every table in Piemonte. Grissini are basically Piemontese bread sticks, but not like the skinny massed produced, pre-packaged kind. A glass of Dolcetto and grissini would probably have sufficed, but what a waste of a gustatory opportunity!
Where was I? Sorry, I fade into a culinary stupor just thinking about Piemontese food!
First up was Insalata Russa, or Russian Salad. I wonder if the Russians call it Italian Salad when served in Moscow. It is to Piemonte (and the rest of Italy) what potato salad is to a Texas barbecue. Actually, it’s an Italian version of potato salad, with lots of extras like eggs, pickles, carrots, capers, peas and even tuna thrown in. Everyone has their own recipe, just like potato salad. Quite honestly, it’s a meal in itself. Grissini, Insalata Russa and a glass of Dolcetto. Nope. There’s more.
Maurilio came in, as usual in a bit of a hurry, and greeted me warmly as he had on so many previous occasions. He was moving and had planned on taking the day off given it was quiet. But here he was and it wasn’t long before he was lending a hand. First, he poured me a glass of the house Dolcetto. Forgive me, I forgot to get the name of it, but it was lovely.
I spooned a bit of the Insalata Russa on my plate, savored it – yup, delicious as always – and then began snapping photos of it. Italians have a God-given talent of transforming simple, pedestrian ingredients into delicious taste sensations. My server brought the next dish. Thinking I was finished, she picked up the small gratin plate still filled with the golden concoction. I grew up in a household with three older brothers and had learned at a tender age to stop someone from taking my food. And I did. It wasn’t greed; it would have been insane not to have just a wee bit more!
I’ve never had the same antipasti choices twice. Sometimes it includes carne cruda – another dish for another post – and sometimes sweet bell peppers stuffed with tuna and capers. But always the Insalata Russa, Vitello Tonnato and, Chef Paolo’s sought-after chicken liver pate with sweet onion relish and brioche. That was next.
This time the 2″ size ball of liver pate had a slice of terrine with pistachio nuts as a sidekick on the plate. This was not a time to be counting calories or fat grams. And certainly I didn’t want to hurt Maurilio’s feelings, so I ate is all. Just remember, it’s all from scratch and no preservatives!
Not finished yet.
Vitello tonnato is a dish that screams “Piemonte!” Chef Nick Haley of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, CO studied at the prestigious Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti and is a huge fan of this simple dish of veal rump – usually poached or braised – and tuna sauce. But he marvels at how Americans are so turned off at the thought of combination of veal and tuna. What a pity because he would like to serve it more often in his restaurant. When properly prepared and yellowfin tuna in olive oil is used, it’s a marvelous dish.
Like every other dish you’ll find in Italy, everyone has their own variations of the creamy sauce. Chef Paolo’s preparation of chilled paper-thin slices of rare veal with a dollop of sauce is never anything less than delicious.
Vitello tonnato makes an excellent summer main course and holiday celebration antipasto. It’s also a popular dish in Argentina, no doubt brought there by Piemontese immigrants similar to Papa Francesco’s ancestors.
Not sure why, perhaps I was protecting my plate, but I didn’t get a picture of the vitello tonnato at La Cantinetta. So here’s a snapshot of one I had at Profumo di Vino in Treiso with winemaker Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino earlier in the week.
Still not finished. And don’t forget, this is “merely” the antipasti.
Although made with pasta, Chef Paolo’s tender raviolo is a popular item amongst the antipasti choices. The presentation changes a bit with the seasons, but it always stuffed with a deep golden, runny egg yolk and pureed spinach and topped with grated Parmigiani-Reggiano. In keeping with the season – despite what the weather was saying – tender green, pencil-thin asparagus were cut and sprinkled on top.
Any one of the preceding dishes would have qualified as a meal, not merely something “before the meal.” But there was more to come. The cardi (thistle) flan with fonduta is another Piemontese specialty. Although slightly bitter, the flavorful vegetable flan is a perfect companion to the creamy sauce made from fontina cheese, egg yolks – and theirs are such a deep golden color! – and milk. Maurilio was adamant in telling me no flour is used in their fonduta as it gives the sauce a slight grainy texture with a taste of flour.
This was nothing short of sublime decadence and a great ending to my meal although Maurilio was trying to convince me to have some pasta. Willpower prevailed, helped along by the knowledge I was going to have a lovely four-course dinner back at Agriturismo Il Bricco that evening! And I didn’t even have a second glass of Dolcetto knowing how strict the drink driving laws are now.
Discovering Chiara Boschis
Finally, without the distraction of food, I had Maurilio all to myself for an interview, except for the occasional break to say “Grazie” and “Ciao” to departing guests. We spent an hour talking and you’ll have to wait until my Vail Daily article on that, but it was the discussion of my book project that finally turned the conversation onto the path of the serendipitous discovery of Chiara Boschis.
In my journal, I simply wrote “Chiara Boschis, owner E. Pira e Figli.” Her family’s name was of course familiar, but this women who was one of the first of her gender to run a winery in Barolo was new to me.
Maurilio said “I’ll take you to meet her.” So into the misty rain we went up the street and across the main road that skirts town to the winery on the corner. Beside the thick, imposing wooden door was a plaque that read simply, “Pira.” The loud bell brought to the door a smiling man I later discovered was Chiara’s younger brother, Giorgio, who has been with her in the winery since 2010. Chiara was away, but he gave me her card. I would have to wait, perhaps until June, to meet her.
Then again, not. The coming week would bring me back to Barolo to finally have an opportunity to interview this incredibly passionate, poetic winemaker who just so happened to be a woman. One of le donne di Piemonte.